By Deborah McDowell, PhD
I came first to the writing of Brenda Marie Osbey in the 1990s, when I happened upon All Saints (1997) on the crowded shelves of Powell’s, a used bookstore in Chicago. To say that the spine of this slim yet hefty volume lured me, spoke to me, is to summon a cliché, I concede, but this is exactly what happened. Conducting research at the time for a study of the rituals and poetics of grief and mourning in African American literature and culture, I had no idea of the book’s contents, but from the moment I sat down on a dusty stack of cardboard boxes and began to read it, I knew that I had stumbled upon a jewel of a book and a jewel of a poet. I began to search out and devour everything in Osbey’s corpus I could find, going back to the early volumes — Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983), In These Houses (1988), and Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman (1991) — but in the roughly 25 years since, All Saints, my first encounter with Osbey’s work, remains the book among her many published titles, I recommend to anyone who wants an introduction to Osbey, the thematic scope of her work, and a glimpse into her ever- evolving poetic practice. I keep multiple copies of All Saints on hand, gifting them to aspiring poets and avid readers.
“Why All Saints?” some have asked? I answer, without hesitation, “Because it is the book that captures for me the essence of Brenda Marie Osbey, who is simply, unequivocally, one of the most talented writers of her generation.” Some readers of this issue of The Fight & The Fiddle will be well familiar with her work, but for those new to it, I offer this introduction, focused less on Osbey’s poetics and signatures of craft, than on her themes and philosophies as a writer.
Osbey’s body of work straddles many boundaries and spans diverse intellectual and artistic forms at once: narrative poetry, the lyric, historical narrative, and the personal essay. She has written libretti, translated writers from other languages, including most recently, her translations of poems from the French by Leon-Gontran Damas, which appeared in Black Renaissance Noire (Fall 2018). She has also compiled and edited the poetry of Nigerian writer, Gabriel Okara, publishing Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems in 2016. Not only has Osbey expressed her spectrum of interests in various aesthetic forms, she has also embraced digital media, recording her poems on various electronic sites, providing her readers a sonic experience with her exquisite poetry, as can be found in “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba.”
A native of New Orleans, Osbey has lived most of her life in the Seventh Ward, and this city has served as the wellspring of much of her writing. But while so much of her work draws brilliantly on the “Crescent City,” it does so with the understanding that this Gulf region has “long been a stunningly cross-cultural matrix” (Flores-Silva and Cartwright 174). Osbey captures its Creole culture, textures, and mysteries, melding them into her singular preoccupations as a writer: death and dying, loss and mourning. In her essay, “Writing Home,” Osbey describes death, not just as a central theme, but also a central character of her work. “Not death as Thief in the Night, Grim Reaper, or even Final Repose. But the specific idea of the Dead as part of the continuum of our families and communities” (37), most especially in New Orleans. As she writes in another essay, “I Want to Die in New Orleans,” it is “the only place in this country where people understand the importance of dying well. Where cemeteries are as prominent as office towers. Where the dead get equal time with the living,” where they “walk and talk among the living . . . only now with an authority they never possessed in life” (Lowe 246). I agree with Thadious Davis that, in Osbey’s writings, New Orleans constitutes a “dual city, the city of the living and its embedded double the city of the dead” (239).
Perhaps nowhere in Osbey’s work is this duality more apparent than in All Saints. Flores-Silva and Cartwright do well to remind us that All Saints, like Osbey’s later volume All Souls (2015), comes “from the Gulf’s ritual calendar when days are set aside as puentes (bridges) between secular and sacred life, the living and the dead” (148). Because the latter volume, subtitled The Essential Poems, contains selections from All Saints, I will refer mainly to the poems in that volume here, which might be read as the instantiation of a command the poet issues at the start of its first section: “live among your dead, whom you have every right to love.” The seven poems in this section, notes Thadious Davis, “move between mourning poems for the recently departed, the foreign dead in the Transatlantic African world, and the familial dead in the factories of the American South” (240), but even the poems in later sections of the volume show the stamp of Osbey’s “peculiar fascination with the dead” (25), to borrow the title of one poem.
In “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” which begins with the ritual acts of lighting votive candles, building altars to the dead, keeping mourning portraits, and placing “silver coins in the four corners of your rooms” (25), the speaker is literally living among the dead, speaking of them “as though … they might hear / from the adjoining room” (25). Twelve years old when she is introduced to this domestication of death, the speaker observes these ritual obligations to the dead throughout her life:
i carry silver coins
in the pockets of all my clothes
photographs of my dead follow me
to each new residence.
votive candles and st. john’s wort
go near the head of my grocery lists. (33)
The speaker judges her later lovers “by the heft of mourning / below their eyes / picking my way through their sorrows,” even “carr[ying] the grudges of my dead / like bowls of ash” (33). Strikingly, she refers to the dead, as my dead, and these remembered souls and loved ones take on the character of precious possessions in Osbey’s work.
It is significant that the majority of mourning poems in the first section of All Saints are written for her friends from Black literary circles, particularly those who have lost their kin — fathers, mothers. She is bearing their dead who become her dead. She picks her way through their sorrows, making them her own. In “Another Time and Farther South,” written for literary critic Clyde Taylor upon the death of his mother, she writes,
in another time and farther south
i would give you ashes for your dead
clean white kerchieves of linen or hand-worked silk
spread crushed shell before you
and tell you to kneel there
and weep in dignity
like a man (20).
While mourning for/with her friend at the loss of his mother, referred to as “your dead,” the speaker is also mourning the loss of rituals once observed in the aftermath of death, rituals now relegated to “another time,” in another place, “so much farther south.” In the face of losing, not only the dead, but also our ritual obligations to them, her only recourse is to offer words instead:
these are words and stand for nothing more
but i can say that in another time and so much farther south
i could have led you through the streets in ashes
one of several women bearing you along
to some sainted spirit ground you could believe on —
a man who had lost his mother, still a son.
and we, the cluster of women
could stand aside beneath the palms
pressing roots of ginger underfoot.
watching you learn the lesson only death would ever teach. (20-21)
For Osbey, death teaches many lessons, including those that concern a culture’s rituals, its enactments of mourning and memorialization. In her essay, “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral,” she examines this traditional celebration of the dead, placing it in long historical context. The old custom of the first or official line, which began with the “solemn processional” from the church and the “exquisitely drawn-out dirge” (98) changed markedly in the 1970s, she observes. It was now replaced by “street revelers” (98), who comprise the famed second line and who, dispensing with solemnity, start the procession right from the church, dancing and blasting to the final resting place. Rather than lament the changes wrought mainly by contemporary youth, Osbey embraces them, viewing these transformations as reflecting “the conundrum of custom in New Orleans. The ability not merely to adapt but to improvise is itself inherent in all our notions of tradition and culture. Here, improvisation is the tradition” (99). For Osbey, the jazz funeral is not a museum object, but rather a ritual that has long responded to the dynamics of history, reminding the reader that “the tradition we laud and cling to was pretty much already dead and dying” (98) by the 1970s. In a delightfully surprising turn in the essay, she traces its decline in the broader context of transformations in the mourning rituals of New Orleans, dating back to the institution of slavery.
Ever a student of history in longue duree, Osbey reminds the reader that Kongolese brought as captives to Louisiana, established the tradition of “vent[ing] the soul’s sorrow with the customary weeping and wailing” after which mourners would “accompany the dead to their resting place with much rejoicing” (104). Of course, the profit motives of slavery killed all that, foreshortening the mourning period, along with its attendant rituals. As Osbey notes, the “Frenchmen and Spaniards who ruled Louisiana were hardly apt to defer their own money-changing rituals long enough to allow for the ‘proper’ heathen burial rites of their slaves” (104) in urban New Orleans. But while slavery’s commercial obsessions may have cut short the time the enslaved could mourn their dead, she commands their descendants in the poem, “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” not just to “honor their dead/as they ought to be honored” but also to mourn and “marry memory to the dead” (All Saints, 25)
In Osbey’s poem, “House of the Dead Remembering,” the speaker proclaims that “memory is everything” (23) but in “The House in the Street where Memory Lives,” the first poem of the volume, All Souls), this faculty inevitably becomes friable and elusive; “it falls apart” (3). In other words, even memories, visceral, embodied, once stored for the speaker in “the tips of my fingers/the back of my tongue” (3) can die and thus their dying must also be mourned.
In the poems of these companion volumes—All Saints and All Souls—such memories live and die in domestic spaces — houses, bedrooms, parlors, and they connect, appropriately, to personal losses, to “private griefs,” to adapt the title from the poem “Desire and Private Griefs,” (6). In the structure and motion of some of Osbey poems, however, these private griefs often give way to the poet’s more transcendent meditations on death and loss, on mourning and memory across expanses of time and space. In “Requiem for a Tall Man” (All Souls), for example, the speaker struggles to come to terms with the death of New Orleans writer, Tom Dent. Appealing to such time-worn adages as “death is a road” we must all travel, the speaker finds a measure of consolation in “tales the old people used to tell” bout “soldiers who came among us for a short time only / bringing peace” (125). The speaker then shifts fluidly, almost imperceptibly, to other, distant temporalities, signaled by references to “dahomey,” “slave ships in the distance,” and to “centuries longer / nearer / than we care ever to have it said.” In the language of the poem, this movement amounts to “splitting memory and time, a movement connecting Dent, son of New Orleans, to a long ancestral past, and to a place where “saints do step in congo-time” (125). That congo-time was once stepped in the famed Congo Square in Tremé of New Orleans’ French Quarter, where a captive people once danced the Congo and other dances from Africa, passing them down to their descendants who kept them alive, along with other African dances and musical beats. “Requiem for a Tall Man,” illustrates the fusion of “private griefs” and collective memory, however vexed the latter term has come to be. Further, the poem captures the ways in which Osbey sees the cultural injunction — indeed the obligation — to honor and remember “our” dead, as a collective responsibility that includes the “many thousands gone” across the centuries, across expanses of space, time, and condition. Their griefs continuous with our own.
A voracious reader with a greedy intellect, Osbey has long had a penchant for libraries, antiquarian bookshops, and maps, ancient and modern. Indeed, the cover and frontispiece of History and Other Poems (2012) are fashioned from a detail of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 Universalis Cosmographia.
In recent years, her work has shown increasing investment in history and quarrels with the archive, perhaps dating from one of her earliest jobs as a researcher in foreign languages at the main branch of the New Orleans public library. She described that experience in her essay, “Writing Home.”
Five days a week and sometimes six, I read through countless books, periodicals, and published and unpublished theses and dissertations on the subjects of slavery, resistance and freedom in colonial Louisiana. I sorted and compiled documents and detailed background files on the origins, material culture, family life, and employment of the city’s early African captives. I routinely studied records of births, marriages, and deaths, and translated last wills and testaments of wealthy free blacks who left everything to schools, churches, and benevolent societies. There were catalogues of ships’ arrivals and cargo, inventories of properties including black human property. And there were endless rebellions and uprisings, followed by capture, ritual decapitation or some other slaughter. I followed the creation of armed black militia, conditions under which the enslaved either earned or purchased freedom, the court testimony of the enslaved against their masters, and other peculiarities of urban slavery the way I’d once followed the latest dance moves” (40).
In one way or another, these and other historical details, undoubtedly the fruits of Osbey’s passion for research show up in her writings. Asked in an October 2013 online interview in Warscapes Magazine, if a poem can be history, Osbey answered with characteristic erudition:
There is a longer tradition of the poet-as-historian than we readily admit. . . Much of the
accepted history of Western antiquity comes to us from Homer . . . Much of what we’ve
come to understand about life in pre-Columbian Americas. Indeed, much if not most of
what we know (or claim to know) about the ancient worlds of Africa, Asia, the Americas
and Europe, we know through poetry. . . This presumed divide between history and poetry
really is a relatively recent one, and one that seems to underscore the recent need to seg-
regate intellectual and creative work into neat and exclusive categories.
Osbey’s work has never honored such conventional categorizations, never less so than in History and Other Poems. There, Osbey takes a questioning, reflective, critical view of the very category of history, questioning most especially its suppressions and distortions, not least those pertaining to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Her volume’s title poem, “History,” that critical impulse is evident in the volume’s titles poem, “History, which takes its epigraph from Robert Hayden’s poem, “The Islands”: “But I am tired today of history / its patina’d clichés / of endless evil.” This long narrative poem explores unflinchingly the violent history of this trade in Black flesh, of European and American colonialism, the effects and reverberations of which can be felt, the book implies, to this very day. Traversing centuries, circling the globe, by land and sea, the poems of this volume bear the stamp of Osbey’s linguistic dexterity, her vernacular range, and her Olympian intellect. The poem provides the reader a history of violence and conquest, of evil and oppression, as well as an extended meditation on history itself, or more precisely our assumptions about it. After the myths, the fables, the abridgments, the approximations, and the outright lies that masquerade in its name, what, then, is History? While the speaker of “History” answers this question in a variety of ways, one pronouncement is clear: “there is no history of this world that is not written in black” (58).
The poem takes the form of a synoptic lesson, albeit a “weary wearied and wearying lesson, “and yet it is to lessons we must go,” the speaker intones, for we have not learned it “well enough” (51). To learn that history requires relinquishing the “chanties about some ocean-blue / because for us / all oceans are forever red” (51). The speaker is clear that, while the “whole of history seems designed to render me sad / disconsolate / broken-hearted / and plain old down” (69), the lessons of slavery’s evils, its “archipelagos of death” must be learned, even if “the real measure of human loss” (51) never be tallied.
History and Other Poems puts Osbey, the linguist and archivist, on full display, particularly in the appended glossary and notes, which include references to the many terms from African and European languages appearing throughout the volume. In introducing the glossary, Osbey explains that the collection uses “phrases, terminology and historically appropriate names of people, places, and cultural concepts from a variety of languages deployed in the forging of the New World — French, Spanish, Portuguese, reconstituted (New Orleans) Creole — in addition to American/English of the various periods” (73). The glossary is careful to parse their meanings, their uses and misuses.
In the 2013 interview referenced above, Osbey mentions “reject[ing] outright the kind of figurative language that underplays the role of the extreme violence of slavery in the New World project,” and one passage of the title poem, “History,” addresses this obscene history at the unit of the word “slavery.”
Then bring me the tongue of any who use the word slave as metaphor for servitude
metaphor for addiction
as metaphor for love
metaphor for anything
bring me their tongues
to tack up on the walls of those castles —
o fort and fortress —
by the saddest of the old old seas.
Despite the references in this passage to the walls and castles of slave forts, I am inclined to read this section, which takes the form of a curse (a form that Osbey also favors), as reflecting Osbey’s concerns about the misuses of language in contemporary parlance and popular culture. As she has noted in “The Poem as History” interview in Warscapes, such “quotidian use of metaphor and other figures of speech” functions to “erase and to disappear the lived experience of a people”
Osbey attempts to capture that “lived experience” in History and Other Poems, even knowing how elusive such attempts are in fact. Though Osbey has written a volume of vast chronological sweep, encompassing references from the 15th century to the present, no one knows better than she that the “lesson” offered up in “History” is but a fragment of the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the horror it unleashed upon the world. The title poem, which closes the volume, ends on a curiously teasing note: “for now we may well consider ourselves done/having come to the end of the addenda/ to the preface for this introduction / of our little history / part one” (70). Addenda? Preface? Introduction? History Part One?
In writing a history that is difficult to tell and does not end, Osbey joins other contemporary poets, such as M. NourbeSe Philip, whose work also addresses historical atrocities, only to render them incapable of capture. In her justly celebrated book length poem, Zong! Philip takes up the history of the late eighteenth-century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slave trading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. As Susan Holbrook notes, in this oceanic poem, which reaches across centuries, Philip works to tell the “untellable,” to deliver a “story that can never fully emerge” (https://jacket2.org/article/m-nourbese-philips-unrecoverable-subjects).
In bringing History and Other Poem to a close with the teasing allusions to “addenda,” “preface,” “introduction,” Osbey announces, if only implicitly, that she is far from done with history. Luckily, for her band of faithful readers, among whom I count myself, she has recently turned her attention to the history of Virginia in a volume-in-progress titled “Virginia Suite,” which builds logically on History and Other Poems.
Also reflecting Osbey’s lifelong penchant for the archive, this project focuses on interactions of Native Americans, Europeans and Africans in the earliest years of the Virginia Colony, considering how perceptions and representations of the 1607 settlement at Jamestown have shaped and continue to shape North American history, mythology, education, law and social/cultural engagement. Now well underway, the seedling of this volume was “In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of These Parts,” a poem commissioned by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, at the University of Virginia, to commemorate the Foster Family/Canada Park Dedication in 2011. The remains of Foster and other free Blacks, who lived on the edges of the University of Virginia’s central grounds, were disinterred when the school began excavating the landscape to prepare for the construction of a new building, which now houses the History Department. While the commemoration represented the institution’s way of remembering and honoring the dead, the poem represents another, one that raises implicit questions about the complexities of institutional commemoration.
The speaker of this poem addresses the reader from the silence of the grave, engaging in her own act of remembering — of her children, a neighbor, Hester, all once alive in “this one small plot — / briefest sanctuary / home and work / laughter and sweet communion / smallest respite against so many martyrs on the way.” For Katherine Foster and those “free blacks” remembered in this poem, the sanctuary of “sweet communion” coexists with the threat of violence. In its second stanza, the poem turns to the “gentlemen” of the university nervous about the goings-on “southeast to southampton.” This is an obvious, tacit reference to Nat Turner, whose actions generated a massacre of blacks, in the aftermath of his rebellion. In retaliation, “no one asks” who is “slave or free,” but proceeds to “hacking negroes right and left.” In the face of this slaughter, the stanza’s closing question is particularly resonant: “exactly what / after all / is / a free negro?”
The poem implies other, broader questions critical to the workings and makings of history, memory, and memorialization, especially for the present. The speaker observes the care being taken with “every little thing” as the excavation proceeds. These gravediggers of a different kind, now charged with “unearthing and replanting” the remains of Katherine Foster and those with whom she shares the grave, may show a “tenderness now that we are gone- / or so they tell themselves.”
What do those in the present tell themselves about the past? As the poem moves unhurriedly to its conclusion, the speaker asks related questions:
and now that we are neighbors to that great institution
who ever will tell what only we could tell?
who knows the cost of what we bought and paid for?
who dares to tell the cost of mr jefferson’s
own sweet dream
and higher calling
for this upper country.
“In Memory of Katherine Foster” takes a quietly critical view of this project of memorialization mounted by a university built and sustained by the labor of the formerly enslaved. Although Katherine Foster was a “free Black,” she, the speaker of the poem, understands that the line dividing slave from free is porous. She understands, moreover, that the act of honoring and remembering the dead and sacralizing their remains necessitates a violent disturbance of the peace and the sanctuary of the grave’s repose. In other words, erecting this memorial to Katherine Foster requires, in the words of the poem, “cutting through bloodied red earth / cutting through this one small plot,” that held the remains of those in this free black community of Canada.
Osbey accepted a second commission from the University of Virginia, one from the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU), producing “Fieldwork” to commemorate yet another burial ground at another edge of the university. This cemetery contains the remains of 67 workers once enslaved to the university and situated below the University Cemetery boundary. Much like “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” “Fieldwork” focuses its attention on the finite, intimate details defining the lives and deaths of those now buried, including the causes of their deaths: tetanus, pneumonia, maternal mortality, typhoid, and consumption. Listed in the “ledger and book” as “unknown,” these souls, notes the speaker, were not “unknown” to “those who love and tend them in the end / not by us / not by rust-red earth / soft-brushed by hands that carry and tend” them.
As in “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” this commemoration of these 67 souls amounts, in its way, to a disturbance. Notes the speaker of the poem,
it is worse than wicked to disturb those going to talk well with their own
grave evil to prevent them from keeping
good company with their own dead.
Understanding the archaeological investments in material culture for the sake of knowledge, the speaker notes nevertheless, “it is well to consider / that research design is one language / reverence another.” Osbey’s own preference for reverence shows in the poem’s final stanza, in which those “unknown,” now named — tessa, hannah, billy, strong mike, william, tom, bacchus, violet, liza and baby liza, old limas, and others — now “surveying / beyond what-all remains of this green/embowered wood.” Now “neither slave nor servant,” they commune in repose, together in “these our truest skins … inside this silty red and clayey soil,” casting off “the evils of this place.”
It is significant that Osbey wrote “In Memory of Katherine Foster” and “Fieldwork” in this moment when the University of Virginia, like other institutions of higher learning in the United States, is supposedly “reckoning with its past.” Founded and sustained by the uncompensated labor of the enslaved, these universities now openly acknowledge that their foundations and prosperity were tied inextricably to this labor, to the violence and brutality on the bodies that performed it. In subtle ways, these poems invite us to think about the questions Saidya Hartman raises about slavery, collective memory, and the ethical responsibilities of commemoration. Hartman is writing specifically about tourism as a “vehicle of memory” at former slave forts and castles, which she appropriately calls “dungeons,” but her questions are much more broadly applicable, including to present-day acts of commemoration in which the consortium of “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery.” Hartman asks, “How can this encounter with the past fuel emancipatory efforts? Is it enough that these acts of commemoration rescue the unnamed and unaccounted for from obscurity and oblivion . . . Is there a necessary relation between remembrance and redress? Can the creation of a collective memory of past crimes insure the end of injustice” (“Slavery’s Time,” 773)? These are weighty questions, and they are not lost on Osbey, who must perform the delicate balancing act: accepting a commission in the interest of a university “confronting slavery,” while granting herself the license to register the complexities—at times, the violence—of that confrontation.
In 1967: On the Semicentenary of the Desegregation of the College of William and Mary,” another poem in “The Virginia Suite,” Osbey brings her poetry of remembrance closer to our times. The College of William and Mary commissioned “1967” to commemorate the year when three African American women — Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely — desegregated the college. Although focused on a different time and place, this long narrative poem, comprised of three cantos, takes a panoramic view of history, embedding the moment of the school’s desegregation in the thick, rich context of early Virginia and beyond. Much like “History,” “1967” incorporates fragments from historical documents within the narrative progression of a poem that also seeks to consider the personal costs of historical change. “how-long-how-many-how-much-exactly-is the cost of a slow and peaceful/desegregation?” Here too, as in the other poems discussed here, Osbey does not shy away from considering this question within the trajectory of the long Black freedom struggle, a struggle fraught with violence and a
special strain of terror
reserved for negro girl-children
with their bookstraps and lunchbox
smartly gathered or pleated dresses, and socks folded over just so… .
who walked past white mothers cursing, screaming
spitting nigger nigger like anybody’s business
Despite this history of the utter violence of desegregation captured in “1967,” the poem concludes on this note: 1967 “was a very good year to be alive and blacker even than you knew.” We might be inclined to extract from this line the evidence of progress, but such would simplify Osbey’s project, and blunt the sharp edge of her critique. She is certainly alert in “1967” to the legacy of the past in the present, as well as to what Dennis Beach has termed, those bodies who are “oppressed by history.” The chronological scope of the poem, as well as that of “History” suggests that there is a kind of memory that “throbs with a pain that is past but never past enough,” thus making history “our neighbor,” and remembrance, a particular kind of ethical obligation (318). Osbey has continued to register that “pain that is never past” in one of her most recent poems planted firmly in the present.
Long reluctant to permit her work to be published in anthologies, Osbey recently relented, contributing “AS YET UNTITLED: A Seasonal Suite” to Martin Espada’s anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. This poem is part of another suite-in-progress that Osbey is calling “As Yet Untitled.” That suite is a component of the much larger, “Etudes Project,” which she described in a note to me as a “batch of ‘studies’ in language/rhythm/rhyme/voice/scan, etc.”
“A Seasonal Suite” explores the wanton loss of black life in the contemporary moment, much owing to the rising tide of white supremacy. In the space in the poem where grief might be, outrage stands instead. The poem sustains this tone from beginning to end. The everyday, relentless slaughter, defining a “season of hate and of violence,” can be “any date year month time” in “regions without borders or bounds.” From college campuses to suburban cul-de-sacs to churches, there is no surcease from this excrescent violence, the victims of which the poem does not name. It seems that there is “no longer interval or spell neither span nor while not stretch” to pause for naming, for mourning these casualties resulting from the “puling entitlement” of white supremacy.
The speaker references these victims only tacitly, but no one who has lived through this “era and epoch” can fail to insert their names: Trayvon Martin, the Charleston Nine, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, to name but a few. These black bodies all blend into each other, much as the poem piles on, with few line breaks and no punctuation, “after-crime scenes:”
suburban cul-de-sacs small city traffic lanes major metropolitan area thoroughfares rural mail routes kindergartens gymnasiums waterfronts campuses driveways churches
Here this non-stop pile of liquefying references accumulates, spilling over, edging each other out. There is no space for pausing, for catching breath.
The poem conjoins this “era and epoch season” to a long history of bloody violence, including that meted out on Black bodies by the KKK, by lynch mobs, whose “mitochondria” has “mutated” to form new mobs, parading out from behind the cloak of sheets. Those with only “blank whiteness to trade on” engage in a latter-day ritual of holding “sheets / frayed through at the center making cross-eyes at the dark world beyond.”
“A Seasonal Suite” invites comparison to “Absent Trees and Rope,” the title Osbey gave her introduction to an issue of Warscapes, which she curated in September 2015. She began that essay by describing the deaths of more than six dozen African Americans from May through October, 1916, “one of the most horrific seasons of racist violence in the United States since the end of slavery.” she went on to say. Historians have long referred to these five months as the Red Summer of Hate, although it was, as Osbey notes, “only one of many peaks in the continuum of white supremacist invective, assault and murder” (http://www.warscapes.com/author/brenda-marie-osbey).
African American poets were not slow to address this violence in their time, including Claude McKay, whose famous sonnet, “If We Must Die,” was one response. In inviting the poets Frank X Walker, E. Ethelbert Miller, Afaa Weaver, Duriel Harris, and Major Jackson to contribute to this special issue, Osbey situates herself — and these poets — within a long line of writers of conscience, who have “historically refused to remain silent in the face of racist violence and abuse.” With this issue, indeed with her whole body of work, Osbey illustrates that famous adage of the late poet Audre Lorde: “Poetry is not a luxury,” which she quotes in “The Poem as History.” As she puts it, “My own practice has always been to think of poetry first, foremost and always as a way of engaging and interacting in and with the world.” Not only does her writing embody this way of thinking, so do the other public offices she has unselfishly performed. As Poet Laureate of Louisiana, Osbey represented the state in numerous national forums and brought to this devastation of Hurricane Katrina, insights that escaped the titular experts, the talking heads, and the opportunists who exploited the tragedy for their own gain. Her own poem, “Litany of our Lady,” performed on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, references and remembers the disaster, while avoiding the temptation, indulged in by so many, to serve up the tropes of a disaster tour. As she writes in a brief essay accompanying an online version of the poem, “New Orleans has survived repeated disasters, tragedies, cataclysms and reverses … Through it all, she remains. And those of us with enough of her in our blood, skin, teeth and bones are resolved also to remain.” The world of writers, scholars, and teachers is fortunate indeed that Brenda Marie Osbey is “resolved to remain” in New Orleans, the wellspring of so much fine work, but she has also shown an equal resolve to remain planted in whatever place engages her with the world and the work of honoring the dead, whom we are obligated to keep alive.
Dennis Beach. “History and the Other: Dussel’s Challenge to Levinas. Philosophy and Social Criticism. 30.3 (2004): 315-330.
Davis, Thadious. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014.
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—. All Saints: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997.
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—. “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral.” The Georgia Review, vol. 50, no. 1., 1996, pp. 97-107. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41401226 .
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Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt
Deborah E. McDowell is the Alice Griffin Professor of Literary Studies and Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Her publications include ‘The Changing Same’: Studies in Fiction by African-American Women, Leaving Pipe Shop: Memories of Kin, The Punitive Turn: Race, Inequality, and Mass Incarceration, as well as numerous articles, book chapters, and scholarly editions. Professor McDowell founded the African-American Women Writers Series for Beacon Press and served as its editor from 1985-1993. She also served as a period editor for the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, now in its third edition; contributing editor to the D. C. Heath Anthology of American Literature, and co-editor with Arnold Rampersad of Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Her service on various editorial boards has included Publications of the Modern Language Association, American Literature, Genders, and African-American Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Her awards and honors include fellowships from Radcliffe, the National Research Council Fellowship of the Ford Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center Fellowship. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Purdue University in 2006.